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Bone shaker

Football fans aren't often keen on archaeology, but archaeology doesn't usually resemble the ARC. Elaine Williams explains

Few would regard archaeology and football as compatible bedfellows - unless of course you are called Dr Andrew Bone Jones and you direct the Archaeological ResourceCentre. The ARC, as it is commonly known, a research base for archaeologists in York, is also a place where the general public can gain hands-on experience, searching through archaeological finds, learning how archaeology connects subject disciplines - religion, science, the arts - as well as connecting the past with everyday, contemporary events.

The earliest historical record of football is of Gilbertine friars playing in the 1390s. In a game where emotions have ever run high, a court entry of the time describes how one friar stabbed another during a match. The York Archaeological Trust, which runs the ARC, had dug up from the ancient site of a Gilbertine monastery in York the skeleton of a man who had obviously received a football-type injury in early life: copper alloy plates had been clearly strapped to the knee to keep the friar going.

When York City beat Manchester United at Old Trafford in the first round of the FA Cup, Bone Jones, as he is known in the trade, seized his chance. The Gilbertine skeleton was brought out, York City was summoned and invited to view the heroic find. An extravagant enthusiast for his subject, Bone Jones had wished for Eric Cantona, on his knees before the sacred shrine, but settled finally for members of the home team.

"Football supporters don't usually get excited about archaeology, but here was an opportunity to make a connection," he says. "Archaeology is so relevant to today. Burial grounds are being turned over for development all over the place and they have to be excavated first. Museums shouldn't just be cemeteries for collections, people need to see why archaeologists are turned on by their finds."

The ARC attracts 55,000 visitors a year and last year was host to 32,000 schoolchildren. During the summer it takes 12 school parties through each day, handling a range of material, Roman through to medieval unstratified bone and ceramic, with the help of close supervision from the ARC's many volunteers.

In the autumn, the ARC runs a special Roman event, aimed at key stage 2 history topics. Volunteers dress in Roman costume and through archaeological evidence children are encouraged to explore Roman culture. Last year this included "Roman women AD95", a display of artefacts relating to the lives of women in Eboracum (Roman York) and surrounding areas. Using evidence from one of these, a writing tablet found at Vindolanda on Hadrian's Wall inviting a friend to a birthday party, children were asked to compare Roman birthday parties (when women had to gain permission from their husbands to attend) with present-day celebrations.

"Winter Lights" in December links the Christian festival of Advent with the Jewish Chanukah and Hindu Diwali, alongside samples of historic lighting from Roman lamps to tinder boxes to late 20th-century fibre optics and lasers. "Structures and Forces" every January is designed for key stage 2 science, and provides trays of mixed building materials, ancient and modern, natural, man-made, mass-produced and hand-crafted, which children are asked to sort through, exploring the properties and nature of materials. Children look at specific building materials such as Roman glass, plaster and mortar, roofing materials such as slate for tall town houses and pantiles for rural cottages. They design mosaics with tiles; they are invited to take apart and reconstruct the model of a timber-framed house incorporating 15th- and 16th-century features; they are invited to put together a roofing scissor truss, based on the medieval trusses in Exeter Cathedral.

"We want to show children how effective these structures were," says Bone Jones. "We are trying to get away from the notion that people in the past were stupid because they didn't have computers and fax machines. We have researchers and students working in the labs here from all over the country, we have our volunteers and we have our visitors. Archaeologists are usually isolated individuals working in labs away from human contact. Here we are a community working together on different levels. We want to demystify the subject. "

Set in the beautiful but formerly redundant medieval church of St Saviour's, St Saviourgate in the centre of York, previously used only as a warehouse for the millions of artefacts and examples from York excavations, the ARC was opened in 1990.

With mezzanine floors supporting glass-fronted research laboratories above, visitors can watch real archaeologists going about their business while downstairs they are invited to explore how archaeologists study the past by handling ancient artefacts, sorting out real archaeological soil samples and trying ancient crafts and industrial techniques. They can also use interactive video to "explore" excavation sites and computers to record the detail of objects found - just as real archaeologists do routinely.

When the Jorvik Viking Centre was opened in 1984 on the site of the York Archaeological Trust's successful Coppergate excavation of Viking York, with its working recreation of Viking domestic life, it attracted thousands of visitors daily, creating a hitherto unknown enthusiasm for archaeology among the public. Bone Jones says: "The Viking centre made archaeology accessible to an extent never accomplished previously. But it was a statement, a set display. The tactile, hands-on bit was missing. That's what the ARC was set up to provide."

Although exhibits were initially designed to appeal to young and old alike, projects have become more targeted, linking in with different areas and stages of the national curriculum and staff especially welcome suggestions from teachers. In-service training evenings are available for special exhibitions.

As a service to the local community, the ARC is also compiling the St Saviour's History Project - the story of a diverse inner-city parish based on interviews with people who have lived there, either among the richer timber-framed merchant's houses or the slums of Hungate.

"A lady who spent her childhood in the Woolpack Pub has recounted how she used to take dead mice from traps and play with them, dressing them up as dolls, " says Bone Jones.

Some archaeologists would say that has nothing to do with their subject whatsoever, but we are uncovering the past in people's minds. That is part of my broad church of archaeology."

Archaeological Resource Centre, York. Tel: 01904 613711 for a free booking

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